Attrition: The Russian Foreign Legion, Sort Of


November 28, 2010: Russia is making it easier for foreigners to join its armed forces. Recruits still must be able to speak Russian, have no criminal record, and meet physical and educational standards, but other than that, anyone is welcome to sign up for five years as a contract (non-conscript) soldier. This new policy won't bring in a lot of new people, but Russia is having a hard time attracting quality recruits and every little bit helps. The navy and air force are particularly short of technically qualified personnel, and don't care if the new guys speak with an accent. Currently, only about 400 foreigners are serving, most of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. But there are also a few from Germany and Israel (where a lot of Russians have immigrated to in the past 30 years.) For those seeking the ultimate adventure, here it is.

But there's more. Russia is in the midst of a massive reform of its armed forces, particularly the army. Poor discipline, low morale and incompetent performance are all legacies of the Soviet era (1921-1991). Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes, and have now decided to adopt a lot more Western military customs. From now on, Russian troops will not be confined to their barracks most of the time. In the Soviet era, the conscripted troops were treated like convicts, and their barracks were more like a prison than the college dormitory atmosphere found in troop housing for Western military personnel. Russian conscripts will now be free to leave the base on weekends, and work only a five day week.

Russia has also admitted that troop pay has to match what is available in the civilian sector, if the military is to get the quality of personnel it wants, and needs. With the number of officers being cut down to 150,000 (and enlisted to 745,000 over the next five years), it's easier to afford big pay raises for officers and NCOs. Pay is also being raised for volunteer enlisted troops, as the previous "contract soldier" program did not offer sufficient pay and benefits to attract enough suitable recruits.

Since the Russian birth rate declined considerably after the Soviet Union broke apart, Russia has no choice but to hustle after more volunteers. Popular demand forced the legislature to cut conscript service to one year. That, plus the low birth rate and the high number of young men not fit (for physical, mental, or moral reasons) for service, means that there will not be enough conscripts available. So it's either volunteers, or a shrinking armed forces.

Russia is also trying to change public attitudes towards the armed forces with these new changes. A recent poll revealed that 75 percent of military age men do not want to serve in the military, and the main reason is the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks. There are a lot of reasons for not wanting to be in the Russian Army, but the worst of them is the hazing. It was thought that this sort of thing would speed the demise of conscription in Russia, once the Cold War ended in 1991. But the government has found that, even among the "contract soldiers" (carefully selected volunteers who are paid much more than conscripts) the old abuses lived on, and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up. It was because of the brutality and lack of discipline in the barracks. The hazing is most frequently committed by troops who have been in a year, against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops, against junior ones. It�s out of control.

This hazing developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

It was thought that getting rid of conscripts would do the trick. Not so. Although the volunteers were in for more than three years, rather than two (and now one) for conscripts, the lack of effective NCOs saw the bad habits persist. Thus the need to develop professional NCOs to keep things under control in the barracks.

The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces. The hazing accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, than American soldiers.

With hazing, and the resulting poor morale and discipline, the military is also unable to keep many of its experienced and capable NCOs. Many of the best ones have been leaving the military, despite better pay and living conditions. All noted the problems, caused by hazing, as a major reason for getting out.

Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing, has led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes, and document fraud, are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self preservation.

The Russian lack of sergeants (praporshchiki) has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them some more, and telling them to take charge, has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs, and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank.

So the Russians opened an NCO Academy. It will eventually take 2,000 NCOs a year, and put them through a 34 month course in how to be a superior NCO. Much of the instructional material is being borrowed from the West, where similar NCO schools have been around for decades. None of these schools, however, keep their students for nearly three years. But the Russians know that they have to break a chain of tradition (hazing among troops, deferring all decisions to officers, and so on) that has crippled the Russian army for over half a century. Thus the long course, in an attempt to drill the bad old ways out of these carefully selected troops, and inculcate new methods borrowed from successful professional armies in the West. The graduates of these academies will become platoon and company sergeants (1st Sergeants) and sergeants major for battalions. They will, as in the West, have the respect and trust of the troops, and serve as an intermediary between the officers and the troops. As in the West, the new NCOs will look after the welfare of the troops, especially when the officers are not paying as much attention as they should. The new NCOs will be paid as much as high ranking officers ($1,100 a month), which will help attract the most suitable candidates.

Only the most physically and mentally fit candidates are being accepted, and these men must also have mastered their military skills as well. The Russians expect these new NCOs to set a new, and very high, standard for sergeants. Thus, after a few years, when there are over 5,000 of these new NCOs in the army, it's expected that the bad old habits will finally be on the way out. This is typical of how Russians solve problems, by piling on. It often works. In this case, it better. Because the atmosphere in the barracks is so poisonous, because of the hazing, that it�s impossible for the army to perform at the same high level found in the West.





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